As firmly rooted in the sociocultural ethos of Kerala as all his films, Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Pinneyum (Once Again) is a universal and forceful cautionary tale that drives home its point with striking formal precision and narrative depth.
Pinneyum (a Malayalam-language film released with English subtitles) hinges on the rapid unravelling of an ordinary Kollam-based family sucked into a quagmire of criminality and guilt.
This story of ill-fated love is deliberately paced and filled with an air of melancholy. It is at the same time shot through with touches of lyricism and flashes of illuminating insights on the human condition.
Pinneyum, which is Adoor's first film in eight years and only his 12th feature in a sterling 50-year career, is a sharp but understated examination of greed and its repercussions on a family struggling to get by in a morally dodgy universe.
Thematically, Pinneyum could perhaps be regarded as an extension of Adoor's last film Oru Pennum Randaanum (A Climate for Crime, 2008), which was about four separate acts of crime committed by people from across the social spectrum - by the dispossessed, by the landed gentry, and even by those entrusted with the job of law enforcement.
Those four stories were adapted from Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai's fiction and set in the princely state of Travancore in the last years of the British Raj, a time of great scarcity and strife.
Pinneyum, the kernel of which is inspired by a real-life crime that shook Kerala about three decades back, leapfrogs presumably to the early 1990s to zero in on a Nair family grappling with serious financial problems and the ramifications of seeking short-cuts to material prosperity.
The choices that the under-pressure family makes, driven as much by fate as by avarice, tear husband and wife apart and spares nobody around the couple the excruciating consequences of an ill-advised get-rich-quick conspiracy.
Pinneyum is far more heavily plotted than any other Adoor Gopalakrishnan film. It also has two saleable stars in the cast (Dileep and Kavya Madhvan). The general movie-going public might, therefore, find the film unusually accessible.
Pinneyum acquires the dynamics variously of a crime drama, a police procedural and an emotionally charged family drama.
Pinneyum opens with the discovery of the lifeless body of a man in a hotel room. The police arrive on the scene and launch investigations forthwith.
As the film nears the halfway mark, the audience is given the faintest of clues to what might have caused the death of the hotel guest. But still remains a compelling guessing game.
But, for all its concessions, Pinneyum still isn't for lazy viewers accustomed to being spoon fed by the means of overtly simplistic storytelling methods.
Adoor, for one, does not clearly spell out the period that Pinneyum is set in. He only provides incidental indications (witness the car models, the complete absence of mobile telephony, the scourge of growing unemployment, the allusion to the Kerala Gulf boom, et al) to suggest the exact time-frame of the story.
The flashbacks and flash forwards, too, are not signposted by wipes, dissolves or date-cards on the screen for easy comprehension.
The focus of Pinneyum is firmly on the plight of the individuals that people it and the revelations that the film makes are bound to resonate beyond the specifics of time and place.
Time, and the dramatic social changes that it inevitably sets in motion, play a key role in the drama. Characters allude wistfully to what is regrettably gone forever, creating the context for the fate that befalls the protagonist and his dependents.
One stray character talks about the family's cowshed that was once overflowing with bovines.
Another throws light on how the breakdown of the joint family system has impacted individuals at large, while a retired schoolteacher recalls how much better life was back in her days.
The story, written by Adoor himself, is about an unemployed accountant Purushothaman Nair (Dileep), who is 31 years and 10 months old when we see him for the first time, facing a job interview board that stonewalls his chances.
The man has been married for seven years and is the father of a six-year-old daughter. He is treated by relatives and acquaintances with barely disguised disdain.
Even as applies for jobs without getting lucky, he whiles away his time reading Agatha Christie. Read books about accountancy, his father-in-law chides Purushothaman.
It obviously rankles him that his family is run with the meagre salary of his schoolteacher-wife Devi (Kavya Madhavan) and the pension of his father-in-law Pappu Pillai (Nedumudi Venu).
Also part of the household is Devi's sickly brother Kuttan (Indrans), a man who has spent his days in and out of hospital.
Kuttan is the only one in this family who is innocent of any wrongdoing. His weak physical condition could be taken as a metaphor for a complex, constantly crumbling society that can only stand by and watch helplessly as despair and desperation run wild.
Purushothaman's relationship with his wife is under increasing strain when fortune smiles on him and he lands the job of an accountant in a big company in Dubai.
But the phase of joy, as it transpires, is short-lived as greed breeds shocking dehumanization.
The superb performances from the principal cast members serve to heighten the impact of the drama.
Especially notable is Indrans in the supporting role of the 'weakling' conscience keeper.
Dileep and Kavya Madhavan, the film's pivots, deliver restrained performances, while Nedumudi Venu is, as always, effortlessly effective.
Cinematographer MJ Radhakrishnan, working within a well-calibrated matrix, eschews undue visual ostentation in capturing Adoor's simple but telling vision.
Minimalism also guides the sparing use of the background score and the cherry-picked sounds drawn from sources in the natural world around the Nair home.
Pinneyum is clearly the work of a maestro who has nothing to prove: undemonstrative but staggeringly impactful.